LA Times Op-Ed: Girls Reporting Sexual Abuse Shouldn’t Have to Fear Being Prosecuted 

By Belen Avelar 

LOS ANGELES, CA – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note the rise of cases involving sexual abuse among young adolescent girls is concerning when victims of sexual abuse and survivors are punished as if they were criminals, according to Rebecca Epstein and Yasmin Vafa in an Opinion Piece for the Los Angeles Times this week.

The authors note the “abuse-to-prison pipeline” is when young girls who have been sexually abused are placed into the criminal justice system without regard for whether they are mentally stable or provide support or counseling to help with the trauma they just went through, according to the report.

The consequences of young adolescent girls having a criminal record “can haunt a person for years; confinement in facilities that are unsafe; and long-term sentences that can keep them imprisoned for decades, even for life,” wrote Epstein and Vafa, adding the abuse-to-prison pipeline primarily affects girls of color, who are more likely to be subject to gender and racial bias than white girls in the criminal justice system.

According to the CDC, “rates of sexual violence against adolescent girls are shockingly high, and yet studies show that they are less likely to be believed than older or younger victims of abuse are.”

When looking at jury trials, the majority of all cases of sexual abuse, “police, prosecutors, and judges fail or refuse to consider – and prohibit juries from considering – the full context of abuse behind girls’ actions,” said the authors.

The Op-Ed adds, “in virtually all cases, police, prosecutors and judges fail or refuse to consider — and prohibit juries from considering — the full context of abuse behind girls’ actions. And sometimes, in a perverse form of paternalism, authorities lock survivors up, citing a dearth of safe alternatives — as if detention is safe for young people who have endured sexual trauma.”

Authors note examples of survivors who are punished and viewed as criminals are when girls who have been victims of sexual abuse fight against adult rapists in self-defense. But then, instead of the system protecting them from their abuser or attacker, they are then charged with serious offenses. Another example is when a child is a victim of sex trafficking and then is later arrested and categorized as being involved in prostitution or charged as a trafficker.

The Op-Ed suggests some states are already taking action by forbidding the arrest or conviction of a victim who has been subject to abuse.

In some states, judges are now allowed to consider the full context of abuse behind the victim’s actions in trials. And victims of sex trafficking are to be cleared of crimes committed due to their trafficking victimization.

“A growing number of states have also passed ‘safe harbor’ laws, which prohibit charges of prostitution against children,” adds Epstein and Vafa.

They add, “Young people who encounter the criminal justice system all should be screened for sexual abuse and exploitation, so the courts do not unwittingly prosecute and punish someone who should be protected. And we must invest in community-based resources and services — beds in appropriate facilities, mental health counselors and treatment — so that survivors of sexual violence have a place to heal and are not incarcerated simply for a lack of any alternative.”

The authors urge “we must invest in community-based resources and services — beds in appropriate facilities, mental health counselors and treatment — so that survivors of sexual violence have a place to heal and are not incarcerated simply for a lack of any alternative.

“Whether in a case related to abuse or not – given children’s developmental stage, which diminishes their culpability and increases their potential for change. For these reasons sentencing children to life in prison without parole should be prohibited.”

The Op-Ed argues there is a stereotype of false reporting among sexual abuse victims which needs to come to an end because of a “credibility discount” against women and young girls that creates a lack of trust in the legal system.

“We all can agree on the goal of ending sexual violence. But as long as this violence persists, girls and all youth who experience violence must be respected and supported, and, above all, they should never be punished because of the abuse they have survived,” the authors conclude.

About The Author

Belen Avelar is a senior at CSU Long Beach majoring in Criminal Justice/Criminology. She is obtaining her Bachelor's degree May of 2023. Following her graduation she plans to join the Gardena Police Department as a peace officer who wishes to expand her career further as a Homicide Detective. Her goal is to help those families whose family members have been killed and provide some type of comfort by figuring out the circumstances surrounding their death and who is responsible. Belen speaks both english and spanish fluently.

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